Ann Hornaday on Golden Globes best director, 'Hurt Locker' and 'Avatar'

By Ann Hornaday
Friday, January 15, 2010

I usually avoid the Golden Globes ceremony, only tuning in late in the show to catch the occasional inebriated acceptance speech. (May the YouTube gods forever bless the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for putting full bottles of booze on the nominees' tables.)

But this year I'll watch with heightened interest one race in particular. I'll be the one at home on my couch, full bowl of popcorn at the ready, whispering under my breath: Bigelow, Bigelow, Bigelow.

With the awards season in full swing, the critics and crafts groups having announced their nominees and winners, an interesting, and in many ways revealing, competition has emerged between two films: Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" and James Cameron's "Avatar." Both have received tons of recognition, garnering more than 100 nominations or wins between them, with Bigelow clearly the favorite among critics' groups. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar nominations on Feb. 2, oddsmakers agree that Bigelow, Cameron and their films are shoo-ins for Best Director and Best Picture nods.

On the surface, the two movies couldn't be more different. Bigelow's taut, masterfully written and photographed character study of an elite bomb unit in Iraq was made for a little over $10 million, which probably accounted for the lunch tab on "Avatar," whose budget was estimated at $300 million. "The Hurt Locker" has made about $13 million worldwide since being released last summer, a respectable figure for a movie set in the Iraq conflict, but not nearly what it deserved. It should have been seen by more people, especially the teenage adrenaline junkies whose repeat viewings have helped "Avatar" break many records set by Cameron's 1997 film, "Titanic." ("Avatar's" global box office take is around $1.3 billion and counting.)

Both Bigelow and Cameron are up for Golden Globes for best director on Sunday night -- a showdown made more piquant by the fact that they were once married to each other (they divorced in 1991). But, despite the vicarious "Boo-yah!" joy ex-wives everywhere will share if Bigelow wins this particular custody battle, there are other reasons to root for her. Four of the past five Golden Globe winners for best director have gone on to take home the Oscar -- improving her chances at the Academy Awards if she wins at the Globes.

And that Oscar victory would be sweet, not just because she would be the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing, but as a sign that the filmmakers, actors and technicians who make up the Academy take the "Arts" part of what they do seriously.

Bigelow has forged a fascinating career since making her first film in 1982. Before that, she was an artist, training as a painter and joining the conceptual art world whose hubs were Manhattan and the California Institute of the Arts. As someone who came of age during the feminist revolution of the 1970s, Bigelow steadfastly eschewed the traditionally "female" genres of romantic comedies and relationship drama as she made her way through Hollywood, gravitating instead to action-oriented thrillers set in mostly male sub-cultures: vampires in "Near Dark," surfer gangs in "Point Break," the crime-ridden underbelly of a futuristic Los Angeles in "Strange Days."

With each of those films, Bigelow honed her voice and visual style, rooted in bold gestures and intimate camerawork. Those impulses, as well as an acute eye and ear for great casting and performances, reached their apotheosis in "The Hurt Locker." Her ability to make the camera an extension of the viewer's own eye resulted in a cinematic experience that was simultaneously poetic and completely immersive.

From its electrifying opening sequence of a bomb unit tensely dismantling a makeshift explosive, to a seemingly endless standoff between sharpshooters in a scorching, windy desert, to a simple, still shot of a returning soldier contemplating the surreal excess of a supermarket cereal aisle, "The Hurt Locker" plunged the audience into the chaotic world of battle.

With "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow created a classic war picture that deserves its place alongside "Paths of Glory" and "Apocalypse Now," but also a movie that advanced the genre, pushing the medium to new heights with a cinematic grammar all her own. What's more, she did it on a relatively shoestring budget, in 44 days, using four cameras in the blazing Jordanian desert.

Without a doubt, Cameron, too, has pushed cinema forward with "Avatar," a movie he's been wanting to make for 12 years and began working on in earnest five years ago. The 360-degree experience Bigelow achieved with old-school camerawork, editing and Mark Boal's pitch-perfect script, Cameron did with cutting-edge computer animation, motion-capture technology and a "virtual camera" he invented. To his credit, Cameron succeeded in creating a seamless world between the "real life" of a mercenary unit on a distant planet and the "second life" its members enter to master it. Most amazingly, "Avatar's" special effects didn't swamp the performances of the actors, even when they were in their blue-skinned virtual form.

Still, for all the escapist fun there is to value in "Avatar," viewers are likely to come away from the experience feeling that they've been taken on a journey by a showman rather than an artist. Its cliche-ridden dialogue ("Come to papa"? Really?) and its pyrotechnically excessive climax leaves an impression less of a film than of an extravagant demonstration of a new software delivery system.

Then there's the relative sophistication of the two films' narrative perspectives: Bigelow adamantly refuses to lead viewers to an opinion about the Iraq war, the U.S. military or foreign policy, trusting the audience to reach its own conclusions; Cameron, on the other hand, makes "Avatar" into an ham-handed anti-imperialist plea, made all the more ironic by "Avatar's" hegemonic conquest of the worldwide marketplace.

Still, Cameron deserves the praise he's receiving. Goodness knows he's earned every technical award -- probably ones they haven't even invented -- and can by rights take home an award for best picture, if only for so dramatically reinvigorating the experience of going to the movies. But whether it's a Golden Globe or an Oscar, the award for best director is for something singular. It's for the filmmaker whose movie reflected the year's most coherent, compelling and provocative artistic vision. It rewards technical prowess, yes, but more important, it recognizes sensibility, tone, voice. It's an award for best taste.

On that basis, this is one filmmaker's year, and hers alone. Popcorn? Check. Batteries in the remote? Check. Cellphone on Silent? Check.

And now it begins: Bigelow, Bigelow, Bigelow . . .

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